Saturday, 14 September 2019

Chawri Bazaar - a Delhi delight

Chawri bazaar is a sprawling shopping area in Old Delhi. You can find just about everything here but the traditional specialisms have been copper and brass items, especially statues of Hindu deities as well as paper, cards and wallpaper. Over time the choice of goods has expanded to include electrical items, machine parts, glass, medicine, clothing, fruit and vegetables. There are also many small stalls and shops selling tea and snacks to the bazaar's thousands of workers. From morning to night the streets are packed with people selling and shopping whilst porters carry impossible loads from one place to another. As I stood watching one man lift a large package on to his back, his colleagues told me it weighed 75 kilograms. With a little help from his friends he pulled it onto his back, smiled and went on his way.

The bazaar's streets are narrow and busy - clogged with rickshaws, scooters, motorbikes, carts, small vans, bicycles and the occasional school transport vehicle. Although cars are not supposed to pass through, they sometimes do, adding to the chaos that inevitably comes to a crescendo in the afternoon when drivers struggle to avoid bumping into each other and workers step into the melee directing drivers wanting to reverse, go forward or u-turn in order disentangle themselves from the crush. Sometimes tempers fray but things calm down very quickly when the traffic starts moving again. Friends in Delhi think I am a little strange but I love traveling through Chawri in a rickshaw, watching the traffic and occasionally engaging in friendly chatter with people in adjacent vehicles when things grind to a halt. On my recent visit I was even offered a bite of a burger by a young couple enjoying a take-away lunch in the next rickshaw. 

The bazaar has quite a history. Founded in 1840, it was the first wholesale market in Delhi and originally boasted many fine mansions. It was also a centre for Tawaif culture. Tawaif were high class courtesans, skilled in music, dance, theatre, good manners and Urdu literature. They served the Indian nobility in the way that Geishas served their Japanese counterparts. Extensive study was required before the young women were brought into service and when this training was complete a celebration known as missi took place during which their teeth would be blacked out. Some of the Tawaif rose to positions of influence, especially in Lucknow which was also an important centre of their culture. However things deteriorated during the period of British rule, the mansions disappeared and prostitution became widespread on the upper floors of the Chawri.

Today the bazaar is a photographer's dream but is also extremely challenging with only a second to get a candid shot before someone or something blocks your view or needs you to move so that they can make a delivery. Last year I concentrated on talking to and photographing some of the casual workers who spread their tools on the pavement, waiting for customers to come and offer them day work as carpenters or decorators. This time I gave up trying to get clear shots and settled instead for glimpses of life in the bazaar. It was my first attempt at something like this so I had lots of unusable images but also a few that I was happy with. Shooting the passenger traffic as it passed also allowed me to capture images of women, noticeably missing from the portraits I took here, mainly due to the absence of women in the street in this part of the city - other than passing through in rickshaws. And speaking of rickshaws I was taken by surprise on one of my forays in here when I noticed none other than Munaji, who I met and wrote about last year, calling and waving to me from one of these ubiquitous vehicles as she went by. Recognised in Chawri Bazaar. Fantastic!

Last year I was able to give several of the labourers a copy of their photographs. This time I again looked for some of those I'd been unable to find but was unsuccessful. Change is a constant in such a large city and people come and go so it was unlikely that I would find all of them again. However, one constant is Aslam, the friendly owner of the Vespa Glass Service on the edge of the bazaar. I photographed him last year and in his absence handed the picture to his son the next day. I passed by the shop again on my most recent visit He saw me, smiled, took the photograph from his desk and waved it at me. He still has the best smile in the market. Both Aslam and Chawri really are Delhi delights.

You might also like The Labourers of Old Delhi

You can see more pictures from India here.

Monday, 26 August 2019

"Social" - a chance find of an iconic 1930's magazine in Havana

Whilst browsing Havana's Memorias book shop I came upon the March 1933 edition of Social an iconic Cuban magazine published between 1916 and 1933. Not quite believing my luck, I spent a little time admiring the brightly coloured, highly stylised cover and monochrome contents before purchasing it to add to my small collection of vintage magazines from different countries.

The cover was designed by the magazine's founder and director, Conrado Walter Massaguer. It features a fashionable young woman, epitomising Social's intended audience - wealthy middle and upper class Cubans eager for its articles on art, music, theatre, fashion, sport, politics and original fiction. This particular edition includes an article on Spanish sculptor, Jose Clara, French writer Andre Maurois and perhaps surprisingly an academic piece on agriculture and commerce in Cuba in 1800!

There are also a number of theatre related articles including a photographic piece on actress Berta Singerman. Born in Minsk in 1901 she emigrated to Argentina with her family at a young age, took to the stage as a child and performed in Strindberg's plays at the age of just 10. She went on to have a stellar career in the Latin America theatre and was befriended by, amongst others Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier who also worked on the magazine.

Light relief is provided by a number of fashion articles including advice on "appropriate" clothing for Cuba's climate, bridal wear and of course, all the latest notes from Paris. Modernist architecture is covered in an article on Philadelphia's Saving Fund Society building and the news page includes snippets on the then recently deceased former US President Calvin Coolidge, sometime French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and Irish republican and eventual president Eamonn de Valera. Many of the articles cover news and trends from outside Cuba, perhaps reflecting Havana's position as a world city during the 1930's. My only disappointment was not to find a problem page. You can't have it all.

Advertising was an important element of the magazine, with leading traders and manufacturers eager to sell luxury goods to its readers. I especially enjoyed General Electric's full page endorsement of its new refrigerator, boasting its advantages and commanding the reader to Buy it! General Electric were clearly on a roll at this time as the inside back cover features another full page advertisement extolling the futures of their Edison-Mazda lightbulbs which the reader is instructed to insist on obtaining. Well known brands such as Remington typewriters and Elizabeth Arden lipstick also feature in the advertising columns.

In addition to making his own significant contributions to the publication, Massaguer secured the services of several leading writers and artists of the day. Examples include Swiss born writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier, modernist painter and photographer Enrique Garcia Cabrera and painter and illustrator Rafael Angel Suris. Suris joined Social in 1921 as Assistant Art Director in charge of page layouts. In addition to producing specific themes for the contents page he was responsible for a series on the zodiac featuring his pen and ink drawings of female characters drawn with reference to the art nouveau style. He later left for New York where he worked as a caricaturist for Harpers Bazaar.

Massaguer led an interesting life. Born in Cardenas, Cuba in 1889 he moved to Havana in 1908 where despite not having studied art formally he secured work as a baseball cartoonist for the El Mundo newspaper. This led to more work and he went on to contribute to a range of publications including El Figaro, Cuba y America and El Tiempo. By 1910 he was able to establish his own advertising agency with one Laureano Rodriguez Castells and the following year held his first solo exhibition of caricatures at the Havana Atheneum. In 1913, together with his brother, he founded Grafico magazine. This was to run until 1918, but two years earlier he established the iconic and highly influential Social and a children's publication Pulgarcito.

Massaguer developed a graphic style influenced by modernist aesthetics with perhaps a touch of Art Deco and cited American artists Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg as influences. In turn, his work influenced many illustrators working in Latin America, including his colleagues from the Grupo Minorista of which he was a founding member. The Minoristas held famed Saturday lunches that drew both local participants and artists from overseas.

He was also active in politics and vigorously opposed the oppressive regime of Gerardo Machado. This led to him living in exile in the United States from 1931-37. He had already spent a brief period working in New York in 1923 and during this time collaborated with a range of US publications including Life, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan and Town and Country. Prestigious as this was, overseas recognition was not something new to our man. In 1919 he had been invited to exhibit in Paris as well as to work on a project for the League of Nations in Geneva.

Following his return from exile he worked as a caricaturist for the newspaper Informacion and in the 1950's accepted the post of Public Relations Director for the Cuban Institute of Tourism. He published his autobiography in 1965 before dying in the October of that year. His work is mentioned and some illustrations from Social are included in the excellent book Havana Deco by Alonso, Contreras and Fagiuoli. 

Monday, 5 August 2019

Cuba - the people I met in the street

I recently visited Cuba for the first time. I'd wanted to go for several years, attracted by the music, Havana's spectacular Art Deco architecture, Leonardo Padura's atmospheric novel Heretics and yes the hopelessly nostalgic Cuba of Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana. Like everyone else I had seen images of 1950's Chevrolets driving along the crumbling yet romantic Malecon, of Cubans smoking enormous cigars and Eve Arnold's 1954 photograph of a stunningly beautiful yet desperately sad Havana bar girl.

I arrived not really expecting to find that Cuba but over several days I would come across some echoes of it, encounter some of the friendliest people I have ever met, be costed by numerous often half-hearted scammers and hear some surprisingly candid comments about the regime. And although I spent most of my time in the cities of Havana and Trinidad, the countryside also provided some unexpected encounters.

Boy with fan, Trinidad de Cuba
I wanted to capture a photographic record of the people I met and I quickly discovered that  the etiquette for this in Cuba is similar to elsewhere in the parts of Latin America. For close-ups or portraits I asked the person's permission and for pictures of children I secured the permission of a parent or adult relative before proceeding. In some cases I was asked for un cu or one dollar which means one Convertible Cuban Peso - the currency used by tourists as opposed to the local peso. At time of writing this is a little less than one Pound Sterling. If you don't want to pay don't take the picture but remember that most of the people you meet in the street here are poor and that the average monthly salary is about £20 which buys very little. There are also some people who might be termed professional models who hang around in the major tourist areas of Havana and Trinidad, almost always smoking large cigars and dressed in very stylised Cuban clothing. These people will expect a bit more for a picture as this is how they make their living so it's best to check and agree the price beforehand.

Luisa, Trinidad de Cuba
Cigars are an important part of Cuba's export economy but are also widely used amongst the general population. This makes it easy to get more authentic pictures of cigar smokers. In Trinidad just a short distance from the main tourist area I met Luisa. Perhaps in her early 70's and silver haired, there was something about her that made me stop. Despite seeming tired her eyes sparkled and she was happy to talk. She agreed to a photograph and after I had taken a few portraits she produced a cigar from inside her clothing and began to play up to the camera. Later the same day I noticed Alberto, a retired agricultural worker aged 85. He sat outside his house enjoying some late afternoon shade. He too agreed to a series of portraits. I only wish my Spanish extended beyond 50 words so that he could have told me some of the lifetime of stories written on his face.

Alberto, Trinidad de Cuba
I am often asked why I photograph so many older people. It is not a conscious decision but I suspect it happens because I am drawn to people who may have a story to tell and it is often possible to see those stories on the faces of the elderly. It may also be because I am myself growing older and am now more empathetic with this age group. On a practical level older people are often more able and willing to spend a little time with a stranger, which offers more opportunity to come away with a less posed, more natural portrait.

It may be true that I usually photograph more mature people but my Cuban trip resulted in many more pictures of younger people than is usual. My favourite is of a small boy in Trinidad. He was standing alone in a busy shopping street known locally as Miami and was holding a large upright electric fan. One leg of his jeans was rolled up to the knee as if he had been cycling and he seemed to be waiting for someone to come up and either take the fan from him or help him to carry it home. I first noticed the sharp contrast between his light coloured clothes and the bright red stripe on the wall behind him. He had an anxious demeanour but brightened when I gave him something in return for the picture which is featured at the top of this post.

Afro-Cuban dance company member after rehearsal - 1
Afro-Cuban dance company member after rehearsal - 2
Gisela, Havana
In Havana I was able to attend a rehearsal of an Afro-Cuban dance company. The rehearsal took place in a semi derelict theatre in Habana Centro. It was quite an experience with perhaps 30 dancers performing under the sharp eye of their teacher and to thunderously loud live music. I found it difficult to capture clear images of the dance but was happy with a couple of shots of dancers at rest. Afro-Cuban dance has strong links to the Santeria religion which combines Yoruba beliefs with some Roman Catholic elements. Following the 1959 revolution all religious practices were severely curtailed in Cuba but since 1992 many of the restrictions have been relaxed and religious observance is now more open. Many Santeria followers can be seen in the street, easily recognisable by their various wristbands and the white clothes worn by new believers.

I was able to visit the home of a Santeria priest who showed me his shrine consisting of various dolls, carved items and pictures including a painting of the Virgin Mary. People come to him seeking advice and help but need to bring an offering to the gods in order for his intervention to work. This can be money, food, alcohol or cigars. In Habana Viejo there are several small shops selling items for use in Santeria rituals. Gisela has one such store. Of striking appearance and formidable personality she not only agreed to be photographed but stood in a series of poses before relaxing and giving me the opportunity to capture the real Gisela in a series of portraits. When I'd finished she suggested a photograph together and said goodbye with several kisses. This is a very tactile culture and can seem a little strange at first to those of us from colder societies.  

Santeria priest, Havana
Most of my time was spent in Havana and Trinidad de Cuba but I also met interesting people during short spells in other cities. In Cienfuegos I was entertained by brother and sister Jose and Gabriella, aged 8 and 5 respectively. Jose demonstrated his gymnastic skills turning several somersaults whilst his mother sat on the doorstep watching. I joined in her applause and then Gabriella appeared. A very inquisitive girl, she had a series of questions for me - not just the usual where are you from? and what is your name? but also why is there a cut on your ankle? why do yo carry that small towel and where are your children?. She will go far. With their mother's agreement they posed for a picture together. 

Jose and Gabriela, Cienfuegos
On the road from Havana to Cienfuegos I stopped to photograph a couple of pineapple farmers, both of them young and one of them with astonishingly well shaped and ruthlessly plucked eyebrows. Over the next few days it became obvious that this is a favoured style amongst young male agricultural workers. I was fascinated by it and now have a small collection of portraits featuring eyebrows that Bette Davis would have been proud of.

Still in the countryside I stopped to buy a drink in Guajimico, a small village near Trinidad. Two little boys came forward - Jesus and Manuel, aged 8. Jesus was the talker and he had a lot to say first telling Manuel not to ask for money It's not nice and then informing me that we are in the same class at school, but I am much better than him followed by I plan to be someone very important one day. I believe and hope that he will be. My driver bought bananas from Tereza, Manuel's grandmother and the two boys insisted on carrying them to the car. Before I left the village they wanted me to see their pig, housed in a small sty at the back of Jesus' house. I dutifully entered the sty and taken by surprise almost fell over when the pig jumped up at me. The boys laughed long and loud, very entertained at my misfortune. We left them with a few coins for the help and a can each of local cola and to their absolute delight they were given a straw through which to drink it. More than anything else in Cuba this short encounter brought home to me the differing expectations of people in different parts of the world.

I only had a few hours to spare in Santa Clara and some of that time was spent trying to find a way into the city centre as several roads were closed on the day of my visit. Stuck in the outskirts of the city my driver got down from the car to ask for help and I noticed a woman sitting on the steps of her home and talking to her dog. Her light coloured hair and animal print top gave her a certain glamour and I asked for her picture. Maritsa was delighted and able to speak a little English she told me that she is a doctor before going on to ask what I thought about Cuba.

Jesus (blue shorts) and Manuel
Pineapple farmer with famous eyebrows
Maritsa, Santa Clara
Despite the general friendliness of the people, not everyone has good intentions. Just as in other parts of the world there are scammers looking for potential victims. They are particularly active in the main tourist areas waiting to snare the naive. Their opening line will be something like "hello where are you from?" and if they get a response they will quickly latch on to the potential victim hoping to sell them cigars. The cigars they offer will almost certainly be of poor quality and offered at an inflated price. One variation on this theme is for them to talk about a "cigar festival" and it just happens to be the last day if not the last few hours of the festival right now so you really must go with them or miss your chance. There is no festival and the less savvy will be sold poor quality items. My technique is to say "no gracias" and keep walking so as not to waste time, mine or theirs. This usually works but on one occasion in Havana it was followed by "No cigars? How about Viagra then?". What a nerve.

Despite this minor annoyance most people I met were friendly, interested in foreigners and happy to exchange a few words. On my fist day in Havana I met Enrique, a diminutive elderly man who stopped me and asked where I was from and why I was in Cuba. The usual pleasantries over he told me that he had been a sailor, had visited Poland and when he was young had wanted to be a boxer. Boxing is akin to religion in Cuba and he was delighted that I knew about legendary local boxer Teofilio Stevenson, three times Olympic heavyweight champion in 1972, 1976 and 1980. Before we parted Enrique assumed a boxing pose and I obliged with a picture.

Enrique, Havana
Many people were eager to share memories of the past, some of them happy nostalgic tales  from sailors who had been to Manchester and acquired blonde girlfriends "it was a long time ago" others with more poignant tales of suffering due to the limitations placed on them and  the lack of opportunities in Cuba. I hope to meet some of these new friends again and to have the chance to hear more of their stories in a lot more detail. And a few more pictures to close...

Barber shop customer, Trinidad de Cuba
Young man with racing pigeons, Regla, Havana
Young woman outside nail bar, Havana
You can see more pictures from Cuba here.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Edificio Solimar - Havana's Modernist Masterpiece

Havana is home to many art deco buildings. They range from the pure "deco" style to later modernist and streamlined structures, often with a local touch added to the mix. One of the city's finest streamline structures stands in the otherwise modest Calle Soledad at the junction with Calle San Lazaro in the Havana Centro neighbourhood. Edificio Solimar was completed in 1944 and designed by architect Manuel Copado. A seven storey apartment building, it consists of 50 units and occupies about 1130 square metres. 

I was lucky enough to see the building for myself during my recent time in Cuba. Spectacular as the images I'd seen on the internet are, nothing quite prepared me for turning the corner from San Lazaro and coming face to face with the spectacular recessed and undulating facade, so reminiscent of the waves from the nearby Caribbean Sea. This effect is achieved by what appear to be balconies running the length of building at each floor but which are in fact passageways providing access to the front doors of the apartments. The balconies are much more discrete and tucked away at the rear of the building. The spectacular curves of the facade contrast sharply with the rectilinear design of the remainder of the street. Not only that, the upper floors stand out clearly from the rooftops of the El Vedado quarter, delightfully incongruous compared to the surrounding buildings.

The main entrance to the Solimar is surprisingly decorative, metal with ornate flourishes suggesting floral motifs. Directly opposite the building there is another apartment block - Caracas. Much starker than the Solimar, it does however boast some rather stylish lettering over the main entrance. An extensive internet search has failed to turn up further information about either Edificio Solimar or its architect. It would be interesting to know more about him as well as stories about the building's residents, both past and current. Readers with other details are very welcome to share them!

You can see more pictures of Cuba here.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Tel Aviv Tales - 4 Change and tradition in the Jaffa Fleamarket

If Tel-Aviv is my favourite city then Jaffa is probably my favourite neighbourhood. I love the faded grandeur of its main street - Jerusalem Boulevard, the quiet lanes and galleries of the old city, the smell of the sea and the possibility of stories on every corner.

Most of all I love the flea market - the Shuk HaPishpeshim. Known for its antique, carpet and furniture shops, the Shuk has seen many changes in recent years. As older traders have retired or died, their premises have been acquired by new, mostly independent cafes, bars, restaurants and design shops, making for an eclectic mix and attracting a new, younger audience reflecting the gentrification to the area. This has resulted in a new night time economy with many of the new businesses staying open into the evening, some of them offering live music at the weekend. Whilst this is new in the Shuk it is not new to Jaffa which in the 1960's and 70's had a thriving nightlife with legendary clubs including the Hammam, the Ariana and the El Dorado the latter of which was to give its name to a gangster thriller movie shot in Jaffa in the 60's. These places are now long gone but perhaps the new bars are reviving this tradition.

Reuven Sinai, carpet and vintage clothing dealer
Mikhail, antiques dealer
Despite these changes a number of older businesses survive, especially on the Shuk’s main street, Oley Zion and the surrounding alleys. I was recently able to talk to some of the older traders, to hear their stories and to find out what they think about recent developments. It quickly became apparent during these conversations that change is not something new in the Shuk. Reuven Sinai explained that when he first began working here, most of the traders were Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom repaired and sold shoes. He particularly remembered a woman Holocaust survivor whose family had all been killed in Poland. She sold shoes and had many Arab customers. Reuven has two shops in the Shuk, one where he repairs and sells rugs, the other a vintage clothing shop. I first met him about five years ago when I noticed him working outside his shop and asked to take his picture. He kindly agreed and later showed me an extensive collection of photographs that tourists had taken of this most photogenic of gentlemen! Now aged 68, he was born in Isfahan, Iran and made aliyah in 1962. His father sold clothes in Iran but a friend advised him that it was possible to make a living from buying and selling rugs and so he bought their shop in 1965.

Today most of the traders are Sephardi, many of them coming from Iran or Afghanistan. I knew that many of the carpet merchants were from "Paras" the Hebrew name for Persia or modern day Iran but had incorrectly assumed that most of them came to Israel following the fall of the Shah in 1979. Time after time they told me that their families had come to Israel in the 1940's, 50's and 60's due to their commitment to Zionism and that whilst life had been good in Iran the desire to make aliyah and to help build the state was more important to them.

Yaron Larian, carpet dealer
Some of the more established traders were unhappy about the decline of traditional businesses but all accepted that that change is inevitable and that if they wish to survive they must adapt as many have. Yaron Larian, aged 60 repairs and sells carpets in his shop on Oley Zion.  He speaks nine languages and has worked in the Shuk for 35 years. Some of his customers have been buying from him for more than two decades. He says "they have bought perhaps 100 rugs from me". Talking about his success he emphasised the need to be honest in business and to ensure both the salesman and the customer are satisfied saying that if someone regrets a purchase they will not return. When asked about change he said "we have to fit in with what people want. In the past they only wanted antique carpets. Now they want modern, cheaper rugs. They don't want to spend, to invest”. He explained that the old rugs are based on natural vegetable dyes and the colour is permanent. The new ones are synthetic and although the colours may be more shiny they will fade.

Yaron was born in Shabazi, Tel-Aviv but his family came from Mashhad in Iran. Previous generations lived publicly as Muslims but in reality were Anusim and practised Judaism behind closed doors. This meant they were constantly at risk of being discovered. His grandfather even made the Haj but later when visiting Hebron he was recognised as a Jew by one of the guards at the Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs) and forbidden from progressing beyond the third step.

Several of the traders tell stories about their ancestors having visited Jerusalem, including those who made what is referred to as the "aliyah b'regel" or the aliyah on foot. Mikhail who was born in Herat, Afghanistan explained that Jews from Bukhara (and fro other cities) would visit Jerusalem, making the journey on foot or by camel - a journey that could take three months. On returning to Bukhara these Jews were considered to have made the equivalent of the Muslim Haj to Mecca and some were given certificates to mark their journey.

Miriam Scheuer, vintage clothing dealer
Miriam Scheur's parents came from Czechoslovakia and Germany in the 1930's. Her father dealt in leather goods. She sells vintage clothing from a small shop in one of the indoor lanes behind Oley Zion. She has had this unit for 35 years but has worked in the Shuk for closer to 50. She described herself as a self-taught expert in vintage clothing of the 1920's-50's but says that young people now want clothes from the 70's, 80's and 90's and she has changed her focus accordingly. She describes the arrival of the bars, cafes and restaurants as being a response to market forces and to changing tastes saying "If I decide to sell my shop someone will turn it into an ice cream parlour". There are already three ice cream parlours in the Shuk, all of them busy from morning until closing time.

Back on Oley Zion, Shlomo Mazlomian has worked in the Shuk for 45 years. His family made aliyah from Teheran in 1971 and were initially housed in a reception centre in Kfar Saba. He learned to repair carpets from an early age. His father taught him to repair carpets from an early age. He can often be seen sitting outside his shop, working on repairs or keeping his antique carpets clean. I have known him for several years now and always spend time talking and drinking strong, muddy Turkish coffee with him when I visit the Shuk. He speaks candidly about how things have changed over the years and whilst understanding that everything changes he is sad at the loss of tradition saying "there is a loss of authenticity, things are different now".

Shlomo Mazlomian, carpet dealer
One part of the Shuk is relatively unchanged. Behind Oley Zion there is a piece of open ground where traders come and spread out their goods on trestle tables or in a number of cases on the floor. You can find just about anything here – books, antiques, clothes, dolls, games, CDs and vinyl, electrical goods, hand-made jewellery, pictures, old photographs strewn on the floor or in boxes - people's life stories being offered for sale. I often look at them and wonder who these people were and what happened to them. The customers here are as diverse as the goods and include secular and religious Jews, Arabs, overseas workers from Africa, China and the Philippines as well as tourists all of whom come in the hope of finding a treasure. I enjoy watching the bargaining that takes place here, including unexpected exchanges such as a Filipino woman bargaining down the price of some second hand Barbie dolls – in perfect Hebrew. But even here there is a hint of change. On Fridays in particular it is not unusual for professional photographers to turn up accompanied by models who strut amongst the customers and pose beside piles of old clothes. 

Bargaining in the informal part of the shuk
Coffee is another Jaffa tradition
Music in Friday morning
Friday is the busiest day in the Shuk. The streets fill up with locals and tourists who come to shop, eat and enjoy the street entertainers including impromptu performances by mime artists and musicians. The streets are filled with haunting Persian and Middle Eastern music played on the oud, saz and kamancheh. These young musicians bring the rich musical heritage and traditions of Mizrahi Jews to a new, primarily young audience. Also on Friday, in the midst of all of this activity, young Lubavitcher men work from a small stall and invite Jewish men to put on tefillin and pray in the street. Open air prayers are not limited to Fridays. Many of the longer established traders are religious and it is not unusual to see an open air minyan during the week.

For the moment the Shuk will retain its attractive mixture of old and new, traditional and modern but as Reuven, Yaron and Miriam say, further change is inevitable. Most of the children of the carpet repairers and antique sellers prefer different careers and many of them work in the professions. Whilst it is sad that some of the old skills and traditions will eventually disappear perhaps the new arrivals are really part of another tradition in the Shuk - that of change, but change mixed with respect for the past.

Hezzi Motada, craftsman at work

Trying before buying
Friday photo-shoot

You can see more pictures from Israel here.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Mahjong, Street Walkers And A Mania For Permed Hair - Hong Kong Stories 3

Five years ago I spent a few nights in Hong Kong on my way to and from Australia. I went to a jazz concert, visited some temples and a beautiful synagogue and took the ferry to Macau. I enjoyed my short stay but didn't really engage with the place and left not really having seen the real Hong Kong. This year I decided to revisit and spent a total of six nights there, once more using Hong Kong as my stopover on a visit to Australia. I decided to take a different approach this time, avoiding the well known monuments and attractions and concentrating instead on discovering what remains of the old Hong Kong. 

Calligrapher, Sheung Wan
I have already written that this visit was to a large extent inspired by the iconic photography of Fan Ho and by Sunset Survivors the recent book by Lindsay Varty that  documents some of Hong Kong's disappearing crafts and traditions. I carried out my search for the world of Fan Ho in the streets of Hong Kong in what proved to be a rich and sometimes surprising experience.

Despite the encroachment of modernity, glimpses of old Hong Kong can be seen almost everywhere. This includes groups of people playing mahjong or traditional card games, often for money in narrow alleys, courtyards of tenement buildings or in cafes and teashops.  The arrival of an outsider does not perturb the players and on numerous occasions I was asked if I would like to pull up a chair. I can play a little but did not wish to lose my money so would politely decline. Most gambling is illegal here but for the more serious players there are legal mahjong parlours where vast amounts of money can be won or lost in a single session. 

Whilst gambling is proscribed, prostitution is not. I was surprised to see young women tout for business in the street. They are particularly numerous in the area around Temple Street market but also work in other parts of the city. During the day they stand around looking bored and making half hearted attempts to attract interest before the more serious business of the evening. It is easy for misunderstandings to occur in the streets around the market. Between the massage parlours and brothels (which are illegal) there are other establishments displaying pictures of women in the window. It turns out that these are karaoke bars. The women in the pictures are featured singers and customers can pay to sing a duet with them. Something quite different to the service being sold in the street. The standard of is going is variable but these places are packed with locals almost every night.

Quartering the fish, North Point
Temple Street has a night market largely frequented by tourists these days but for me the neighbourhood markets used by locals are more interesting. Fresh meat and fish are on sale everywhere. And I mean fresh. It is not unusual to see the fish still moving. Several times I saw fish put up strong resistance to getting the chop, jumping and trying to slither away from the fishmonger's knife. However, resistance is futile and always ends in defeat but even then, severed heads can be seen breathing, hearts pumping and sectioned eels wriggling. Whole pigs are delivered to butchers, dumped on the pavement at the entrance to the shop and then hauled in with a huge skewer. They are immediately quartered, sold and probably eaten before the day is out. There are many butchers and competition is fierce. Red metal lamp shades hang over the stalls to enhance the appearance of the meat, enriching the colour, emphasising its freshness and attracting customers. Some vendors sell tiny live frogs. These are also for consumption and I am advised some customers take them home still live and kill them themselves. Hong Kong's markets are not for the feint hearted. I am a vegetarian. 

Food and its consumption is a social activity in Hong Kong. Almost every street has at least one neighbourhood style cafe or restaurant and little groups of fiends or relations can be seen sitting, eating and talking together. Even where people eat alone jokes and comments are shared between table. I stopped in several such places to snack and drink tea but unfortunately couldn't share the jokes not being able to understand Cantonese and the humour can be lost in translation. These little local places are in stark contrast to the skyscrapers and high powered business premises that dominate the skyline here and which represent Hong Kong for so many people. However I have no doubt that the skyscrapers provide many of the restaurants' customers.

Delivering whole pigs to the butcher
Sunday brunch, Tsim Sha Tsui
If I am traveling for more than a few days I like to visit a local barber. I do not care for modern salons and prefer a more traditional service. In London I have used the same Turkish barber shop for a number of years. The service includes a wet shave, hot towel, head and neck massage, threading and other painful activities all in the pursuit of male beauty. It also involves drinking copious amounts of Turkish coffee. I knew that a few, not dissimilar Shanghainese establishments still survive in Hong Kong and so visited the Kiu Kwun Barber Shop on Java Road in North Point. The ground floor has a long row of chairs each of them attended by a septuagenarian barber wearing a white coat and a mask covering mouth and nose. The chairs face long mirrors that enable the customer to see not only the barber but all of the comings and goings around him. A little surprised to see me, the manager asked who I was. Once he understood that not only was I a serious customer but also interested in the shop itself he asked me to come and see the first floor room. I climbed a narrow staircase and emerged to be greeted by the turned heads of a few older women sitting under enormous hair dryers, nursing magazines and looking slightly less than pleased to see me. Like the men, they sat in front of long mirrors encased by tiny colourful tiles that probably date from the 1950s. 

I was shown around by Gao Tak Tin who arrived in Hong Kong in 1959 and initially lived in a squatter village. He began learning the trade at the age of 14 and practised on a watermelon so as not to hurt his customers and has now been a barber for almost 60 years. Mister Gao has seen many changes in style including at one time a mania for permed hair. Mercifully that style is long passed. Kiu Kwan is the largest remaining Shanghainese barber shop in Hong Kong and has 14 employees, not one of them below the age of 70. When the business finally closes a piece of history will be lost. I had a haircut and shave for just 70 dollars. That's about £7. Quite a bit more than my London barber charges.

Mister Gao Tak Tin in the Kiu Kwan barber shop
Gao's style of barbering may be dying out in Hong Kong but other traditions linger on. The villain hitters are a group of elderly women who practice a form of sorcery under the Canal Road flyover between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai. As well as attracting people like me who want to observe and photograph them they continue to receive many local visitors who believe in their powers. They attempt to place a curse on the individual of one's choice by beating a paper effigy with a shoe whilst chanting about breaking their arms and legs. The ceremony ends with the burning of a paper tiger and the tossing of wooden dice to see if the spell has worked. Not wanting to cause trouble for anyone I elected instead to have any curses placed on me removed. I was invited to write my name of a piece of paper before bowing and waving three incense sticks three times at a small shrine. I then sat perfectly still whilst burning paper was circled three times around my head before the villain hitter declared me curse free and lucky. Throughout the whole process people were passing by, getting on and off buses and generally going about their business completely disinterested.

Still on the subject of effigies, I made a visit to Au-Yeung Ping Chi's shop. He hand makes paper representations (effigies) of the favourite items of  deceased relatives that are then burned at their funerals in order to ensure they have everything they need in the next life. In the past families requested effigies of favourite pets, food, drink, mahjong sets, radios and other every day items. Au-Yeung says that today people ask for more luxurious goods including smartphones, designer clothes, luxury cars, palatial homes and the latest IT equipment. Looking around his shop I saw examples of several of the items as well as an aquarium complete with paper fish, made to order for someone whose passion had been collecting them. The hand made effigy business is now threatened by the import of mass produced items from China. This particular shop will close when the owner retires as he is not married and has no children.

Villain hitter, Canal Road
Au-Yeung Ping Chi at work in his effigy shop
About 16% of Hong Kong's population are 65 or older. They have a visible presence in the streets. streets - working, shopping, sitting with friends or looking after small children. I have already written about the elderly people who collect discarded cardboard in the streets and then sell it for recycling.  In North Point I noticed an elderly woman sitting beside her collection of cardboard,  almost certainly waiting for a dealer to come and take it from her. She seemed tired and bored. Despite this and the nature of her work she was smartly turned out in a patterned blue/ purple jacket and I couldn't resist a candid shot of her. As I clicked she looked up from her place in front of the fly posted walls and saw me. I smiled and to my delight she smiled back and waved. I went across to her but without a language in common we couldn't speak. She took my hand for a moment, indicated that it was OK to take her portrait and broke into a stunning smile.

Many of the older people I met were still working. Some, like Mister Yung who has a small stall in the jade market, explain that they don't need to work these days but do like to have "something to do" with a chance to socialise and pass the time. This was something I came across several times, often at the end of more harrowing stories about the past. People spoke freely about having survived the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the Second World War only to have to flee China after the revolution. Not all the stories had happy endings and more than one included relatives having been shot or sent to re-education camps following failed attempts at escape. In some cases there was also a nostalgia for the 1980's and 1990's coupled with concern for the future.

Lady in blue, North Point
The smile of a generous heart 
Mister Yung, stallholder in the Jade Market 
My time in Hong Kong passed too quickly. I left wanting to continue my search for the old city and for the disappeared world of Fan Ho. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, there are glimpses of that world everywhere, not just in the alleys and side streets but also in the faces of the Sunday strollers in Sai Ying Pun, the antique hunters and street artists of Sheung Wan and the shoppers in the markets of North Point and Mong Kok. Did I feel as if I'd seen the real Hong Kong? Oh yes, but I left with a desire to see still more and hoping that despite rapid change it will still be possible to find it on my next visit.

As ever, I can't resist including a little more...

Sunday strollers, Sai Ying Pun
Saturday ballet students, Sai Ying Pun
Quarrel between friends, Sai Ying Pun
Sense of humour, North Point
Walking the dogs, Sai Ying Pun
You might also like Looking for the old City - Hong Kong Stories 2 or Street Art and Selfies - Hong Kong Stories 1

You can see more pictures of Hong Kong  here.

I would like to note my thanks to Eric Wan who was tireless in tracking down people and places for me in Hong Kong and to Emily Gilman of Ampersand who made many of the practical arrangements including securing Eric's excellent services! Thanks both.